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The Church Is a Mess, and the SSPX Situation Is Driving That Home

It’s 2020, and right now, the Catholic Church looks like a giant dumpster fire.

For the past seven years, we’ve had a pope who has seemed hell-bent — literally — on undermining or even directly contradicting the truths of the faith. From Amoris Laetitia to Abu Dhabi to the attempt to change the teaching on the death penalty (with all the attendant ramifications), the issues are numerous and very serious. The pages of this website are full of documentation and analysis on these topics. And to make matters worse, our pope has personally protected clerical abusers while paying lip-service to a “zero tolerance” policy.

As if that all weren’t exhausting enough, we came into this year on the tail end of a synod that featured idolatry, near-pantheistic environmentalism, and a serious debate over the prospect of doing away with clerical celibacy and adding women to Holy Orders.

And then, suddenly, the coronavirus pandemic swept through the world, and things got even more intense. Francis and his “reform” agenda were suddenly swept off center stage as an even bigger crisis loomed — one that hit home for Catholics in an even more direct way as churches around the world closed down, and worse, people in many places lost access to all the sacraments.

In the past six weeks, over 200,000 deaths around the world were attributed to a virus we still don’t know how to properly fight. How many of them were Catholics who died without receiving last rites or so much as a deathbed confession, all on the orders of their bishop, whose chief job it is to be a shepherd to souls?

For the first time in the modern world, many Catholics are coming face to face with what it feels like to live without access to those things that are the greatest sources of grace in their lives. It’s not a persecution in the traditional sense, but we’re getting a taste of what that might feel like. Not a few have wondered out loud if it may be a prelude to exactly that.

In countries with few vocations, even opening parishes back up may not bring relief for many. In Italy, at least 109 priests have died since the pandemic began. In Spain, it’s now over 70. There’s no way to know, from where I sit, how many of them were in active ministry and how many were retired, but you can bet it’s a mix of both. The youngest priest who died in Italy was only in his 40s. Who will replace them? Who will offer the Holy Sacrifice at their now-priestless parishes when public Masses are allowed to resume?

How much revenue has the Church lost during the pandemic? How many empty collection baskets, how many forgotten bishops’ appeals, how many Catholics so fed up with shepherds who have left them to fend for themselves that they’ll never donate again?

How many parishes will shut down now, because they can no longer be sustained?

How many people who only went to Mass irregularly before will not go at all now that even that habitual practice has been broken?

And despite all of this, what have we learned?

Have we really considered how much we may have taken for granted? Have we entered more deeply into prayer, or drawn closer to Our Lord in other ways that don’t require our presence in a church?

Are the faithful banding together in this difficult time, or have we spent the past couple months tearing each other apart?

Our Inner Conflict — Infighting and the SSPX

Stuck at home, spending even more time than usual online in a quest for social interaction, it seems we’ve been arguing about everything. We battle it out over pandemic-related statistics and medical studies. We form tribes and camps over the economic fallout of the response to the virus versus concerns over health and safety. We line up in our respective trenches over whether we love our government leaders or think they’re the biggest idiots in the world, lobbing insults and derision at one another in a bid to prove that we are on the right side of history, and everyone who disagrees with us is a fool.

None of us is immune to this behavior, or at the very least, the temptation to engage in it. All of us are trying to figure out what to make of everything that’s happening and what we should do. Many of us are afraid of what we don’t understand and trying to make up for it by convincing ourselves we know more than we actually do.

And now, when it seemed as though the furor was already reaching fever pitch, even more division has settled in among virtual enclaves of even the most orthodox of our co-religionists.

For almost two weeks, a battle raged online among various partisans in an age-old debate about the status and theological positions of the Society of St. Pius X. For many readers of this website, the battle is nothing new — it’s been going on for decades. We’ve written about it a number of times here in these pages, and the best conclusion I can come to is that all arguments aside, only Rome can settle the matter, and Rome has obstinately refused to do so. My own suspicion is that Rome is caught in a paradox of its own making: condemn the Society, and it condemns its own patrimony and perennial teaching; regularize the Society, as it is, and Rome is tacitly admitting that there is much wrong with the Second Vatican Council and the failed experiment that is the post-conciliar Church. So these people intentionally keep things in limbo and leave us to squabble over what only they can put right.

And squabble we have.

But then, just as this latest debate looked as if it was finally about about to die down, Church Militant — with its well known history of anti-SSPX bias — threw gas on the fire. Church Militant issued an explosive report, detailing a number of allegations concerning sexual abuse and cover-up within the Society over the years.

The report (the transcript of which has been taken offline by CM, see PDF here) was extensive but, sadly, full of editorializing comments. Even the title — “SSPX — Sympathetic to Perverts” — was incendiary. A few paragraphs in, the SSPX is described as “a controversial society of Catholic priests, proving itself no different from scores of other dioceses it looks down on — all while draping itself in the pomp of traditional Catholicism, covering over a network of lies, spanning continents[.]”

The author of the report, Christine Niles, claimed in a social media post related to her report that she had “no hostility” to the Society. Yet she made reference to “SSPX-zealots” in social media posts — where she is known for her combative style — and accused people questioning the tabloid-style approach to the issue of being “pedo-enablers.”

The initial SSPX response included jabs of its own, including a charge of “yellow journalism,” a “tabloid,” and “not a serious journalistic enterprise.” But the SSPX also promised “full transparency” and “detailed responses to every allegation.” It’s begun providing those here but has a long way yet to go.

James Vogel, the communications director for the SSPX, had some of his internal emails on messaging strategy accidentally leaked. Church Militant released excerpts, and they appeared damning — indicative of information being withheld. But lacking their full context, it’s impossible to make an informed judgment. It won’t stop people from forming conclusions anyway.

I mentioned on my podcast last week that I’ve been friendly with Vogel for a number of years. We’ve never met in person, but we’ve talked on the phone at length on multiple occasions, and my impression is that he is a man of character who cares deeply about doing the right thing. We had a couple of brief interactions since the story broke, and I told him I’d pray for him and encouraged him to be as forthcoming as possible.

“There is no option but total transparency,” Vogel told me. “None.”

He left me with the clear impression that he could never in good conscience work for an organization that wanted him to cover for abuse, so it seems reasonable to conclude that he doesn’t believe that they SSPX has done so thus far. Based on what I know of the man, I have no reason not to believe him, but the process of transparency is going to take time, as the Society has acknowledged. And the questions raised demand answers. Sooner rather than later.

We need the truth and nothing less. Secrecy and lies cannot be tolerated.

In the interim, unfortunately, it seems that the Voris-led Church Militant is far from satisfied with the response thus far. In his latest Vortex, entitled “You call that a response?” — no, I’m not kidding, that’s really the title — Voris unleashed more scathing rhetoric against the SSPX. Here are a handful of sentences that stood out as gratuitous as I read through it:

  • “For an outfit that presents itself as so superior — meaning holier — than actual Catholics in full communion with the Church, they sure can write public statements with the best of the corrupt Church of Nice.”
  • “The breakaway Catholic group — and it is breakaway because it has its own bishops not under the jurisdiction of Rome — issued its statement, which, frankly, is laughable. It has all the intellectual weight of being composed by a bright high school student.”
  • “Wait until you see what else we have coming out soon. Let’s just say that your statement-writer dude is going to be pretty busy.”
  • “If it’s slanderous, then sue us. But remember, you drop a suit on us and we get full discovery.”
  • “A sidebar for the SSPX leadership: If you’re going to run a cover-up, the point is to keep it covered up, not include reporters on your secret, ‘crap, what the hell do we do now?’ e-mails.”
  • “This is your pathetic response to being busted with your own e-mails?”
  • “Why don’t you produce a list of names like every diocese in America has done? Or, are you too holy for that?”

Notice that twice, he weaponizes the word “holy,” as though the priests of the SSPX have been merely pretending to care about living the faith, or fulfilling their stated mission to “restore all things in Christ.” Even if a number of members of the Society are guilty of criminal abuse or neglect, they claim nearly 700 priests around the world and many thousands of adherents. It feels as though they’re all being included in these smears. Their founder is often praised even by those who disagree with some of the choices he made — a far cry from a figure like Marcial Maciel.

Jassy Jacas, one of the young women who brought some of the allegations to light in a Facebook post back in January, recognized the distinction even as she addressed her concerns:

Now I would like to be clear and say that there are so many good, holy, and manly priests within the SSPX who I love and pray for daily. There are good and holy people and priests within and outside of the society who have been and still stand ready to help and make things right. It breaks my heart that those who are in power to do something about this are choosing not to, but you would be very wrong to think that this is the reflection of all SSPX priests.

Voris’s approach, on the other hand, comes across as playground-level taunting. There appears to be an almost gleeful excitement about the prospect of uncovering sordid, horrible crimes. It carries the tenor of a kind of vigilantism.

What good does that do? How does it help the victims? How does it get us closer to the truth?

Nobody seems to know with any real certitude why Voris and the larger Church Militant apparatus has such an axe to grind with the Society in particular, but the animosity the organization has for the Society is well known to the point of being clichéd. Here’s a piece detailing the conflict from way back in 2015. It isn’t anything new.

But it is, in my view, imperative that investigative journalism of alleged sex abuse be a serious fact-finding mission, not the pursuit of gratuitous satisfaction of a personal vendetta. To mix this kind of bias with reporting on a matter this significant undermines the credibility and the seriousness of the investigation itself.

As someone said to me on Twitter today, “I’m very displeased w/ CM for making a group under scrutiny for *sexual abuse cover-up* more sympathetic just by how vindictive CM is acting. I don’t want my CM frustrations to make me unduly trust the SSPX’s side, but the SSPX certainly comes off as the more level-headed one.”

That’s exactly my point. I don’t want to feel sympathy for the accused, but I don’t want to be a party to injustice, either. If we’re left sorting through motives, it distracts us from the facts.

If I see a story on CNN or the Washington Post about President Trump, I immediately look at whatever is written with an air of suspicion. Their bias against him isn’t even hidden. They’re constantly looking for anything they can to use against him.

That doesn’t mean that none of what they’re reporting about him is true. But bias shifts the narrative and calls into question the scrutiny deployed in the investigation itself. And as Catholic Family News editor Matt Gaspers detailed in an article last year about another Church Militant attack on the Society, there’s a reason to question their reporting.

I want to feel confident that whoever is leading the charge on something this damning cares more about the truth than settling scores. First, because I know that false accusations happen. Good luck putting your good name back together if you wind up subjected to them. Second, because there’s a difference between an accusation and evidence. Third, because those faithful attached to the Society are going to struggle to believe even the most balanced reporting at this point. People have an emotional and spiritual connection to their chapels and their priests. There is a need for delicacy at this stage of the investigation. An unbiased evaluation gives room for people to let go of their defensiveness and come to terms with hard truths.

The Hard Truth Some “Trads” Don’t Want to Hear

One of those hard truths is this: traditional Catholic orders are not immune from sex abuse scandals.

There is a prevailing myth that traditional Catholicism has been largely untouched by sexual abuse because it’s true Catholicism. I’m not sure where the logic goes from there, but perhaps it involves divine protection or the violation of free will. Here’s the thing: there is some truth to the idea that the small self-selected subset of Catholics who’ve made an effort to live a more challenging and orthodox version of their faith are probably less likely to have these problems than in places where Church teaching and discipline are casually disregarded. But the infamous lines for confession at every traditional parish tell the rest of the story: we are not excluded from consequences of a fallen nature.

I was drawn to the Legionaries of Christ as a teenager for a similar reason to why I was later drawn to tradition: I was tired of status quo Catholicism. I was done with folk groups and Communion in the hand and a sanctuary full of lay Eucharistic ministers. I was losing my faith because nothing about the way it was practiced most places seemed authentic or believable. And then I stumbled upon a congregation full of vibrant young men appearing to live a kind of Catholicism I thought had gone extinct. They wore cassocks. They had discipline. They sang Gregorian chant. They used incense and had adoration and benediction — two things I’d never seen at that point in my life — and during the consecration, the priests would hold up the host to be venerated for an unusually long time. They appeared to really believe, and actually acted like true Christians — they were charitable even though they were serious about the Faith.

They made me want to be a better Catholic.

They still turned out to be a cult.

Even as I was rediscovering my faith with this group in the early-to-mid ’90s, young men were being abused at the very locations I was going to for retreats. I very likely met some of the victims and their abusers during my visits and never had any idea. Real good and true evil were co-existing in the same space.

The founder of the Legionaries was a horrific monster, but many of the people drawn to their ranks were salt-of-the-earth Catholics attracted to the same superficial orthodoxy that I was. What made them appealing was that very authenticity. The good of the members created an appealing façade over a rotten core.

The point is, I know firsthand that this can happen, even in a place where you see much good being done. We are all subject to concupiscence and sin, and even the perversities that lead to the abuse of children and vulnerable adults are possible anywhere. Before I was married, I dated two different young women who I later found out had been abused, not by priests, but by family members. As random samplings go, that’s pretty staggering. Both came from Catholic homes.

When it comes to the Society, I’m not a partisan. Like any other group, both good and bad co-exist there. I’m not excited about the revelation of any crimes or cover-up, because any time we encounter that, it’s an awful reality with a real toll on human lives and souls.

But if there has been abuse and cover-up within the Society, I want to see every ounce of it exposed, and those responsible held accountable. We need this evil cleansed from every corner of the Church.

The question we should ask in the interim is whether, when all is said and done, we want to see the Society reformed or destroyed. I asked that question to Christine Niles. She said reformed. I’m not sure everyone at her organization agrees.

I am a commentator, not an investigative journalist. I have neither the training nor the temperament for investigative journalism. But I hope those who are start investigating this, too. Just because I object to the way this story has been handled so far does not make me a “pedo-enabler.” Nor does it mean I think Church Militant’s investigation is without value. The reporters there did the right thing by pursuing it. Now that allegations have been brought into the open, we should see them examined and adjudicated appropriately. Ideally, other Catholic journalists will join in. Catholic News Agency, the National Catholic Register, Catholic World Report, even Crux News all come to mind, as do individual journalists like Phil Lawler and George Neumayr.

Let all that has been hidden in darkness come into the light. But let’s also remember that none of this comes without a cost. There are precious few Catholic institutions left that don’t at least appear rotten, and the number is dwindling.

In general, there is a growing feeling as though the world is drowning, and there aren’t many islands left sticking up above the surface. There’s too much fighting and tribalism. Trust and magnanimity seem to be at an all-time low. It’s tense, awkward, and uncomfortable. We are becoming habituated to serious disappointment in our fellow man, not just in the secular world, but among our fellow Catholics — laity and clergy alike.

A number of you have expressed to me that sometimes it just makes you want to throw your hands up and walk away from it all. Believe me, I know the temptation. But I have a growing suspicion that God is using this — all of it — to purify us. He is revealing hearts and minds and giving us cause to stop clinging to other creatures and even some of our normal spiritual consolations and turn instead to completely to Him.

Let’s all pray for each other as we struggle to keep our heads above the tide.

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